Miller library's Enchanted Garden welcomes monarchs

As she prepared to set her monarch butterflies free, Ann Hackeling's hands shook a little.

She had one task to complete before she could let them fly away. Delicately pinching the top of each butterfly's wings together, Hackeling placed a sticker the size of a pinky nail on top of a mitten-shaped marking on one wing, then gently held the sticker under her thumb for a few seconds so the glue that binds it to the butterfly could activate.

"You don't want to hurt them, so I was nervous about that," she recalled. "While I was holding them, I could see those little legs just squirming around, like they definitely wanted to go attach to something. I couldn't wait to release them because it looks like just such a happy thing to be able to fly."

Hackeling works for the Howard County Public Library System as a research specialist and coordinator for the Enchanted Garden, a quiet spot planted with flowers, vegetables and herbs in raised beds next to the Miller branch library in Ellicott City.

This fall, she and the library have played host to eight monarchs as they make the transition from caterpillar to butterfly. The Miller branch is a stop on the newly created Monarch Waystation Trail, a group of nine locations across the county that have been certified as habitats for the butterflies.

Monarchs, with their orange, white and black wings patterned like stained glass, are some of the nation's most eye-catching and best known butterflies. Over the past few decades, however, their habitats have been threatened by development, pesticide use and climate change.

In the last 10 years, Monarch Watch, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving monarch butterflies, has recorded three of the species' lowest population counts.

In her role as caretaker of the Enchanted Garden, Hackeling decided the library could make its own small contribution to helping the butterflies survive. In the spring, she and her class of Tween Sprouts, a youth garden club for kids ages 9 through 11, planted a plot of native nectar plants to attract the butterflies. The garden, which grows under a "Save the Monarchs" sign, has three different types of milkweed, the monarchs' favorite plant.

Next to the plants sits a pollinator box, a shelter for solitary bees and other insects that help move pollen from flower to flower.

There's also a second sign, which lets visitors know the garden is an official Monarch Waystation.

Monarch Waystations, which are registered through the Monarch Watch organization, provide the plants necessary to sustain monarch populations, which reproduce three times in the spring and summer before producing a fourth generation, a heartier and longer lived crop of butterflies that makes the long journey to Mexico, where they spend the winter.

The butterflies Hackeling released were fourth generation monarchs. The stickers she placed on their wings before letting them fly free each contained a unique code that can be entered into a database by Monarch Watch employees down in Mexico, who spend the winter documenting the butterfly populations there.

Other farms and nature centers in the county have made their own butterfly gardens, which have been certified as Monarch Waystations.

The other eight waystations can be found at the Robinson Nature Center, the Howard County Conservancy, the Middle Patuxent Environment Area, Breezy Willow Farm & CSA, Clark's Elioak Farm, Living Farm Heritage Museum, Sharp's at Waterford Farm and Whipps Garden Cemetery.

Together, they make up the Monarch Waystation Trail, which Hackeling hopes will grow with time: "Monarchs are going to need a lot more than just our little garden," she said.

Visitors to the library can pick up a brochure about the waystations, which are open to visitors. MonarchWatch.org has more information for people interested in planting their own butterfly gardens and joining the waystation network, which had nearly 11,800 habitats registered as of Aug. 28.

Hackeling plans to continue the monarch program at the Miller branch library.

She and other gardeners who volunteer at the Enchanted Garden found the monarch caterpillars earlier this month and sheltered them in a mesh cage as they spun their gold-specked, jade-colored chrysalids and metamorphosed into butterfly form. Out of the eight monarchs at the library, three have emerged so far.

Setting those first monarchs free, Hackleing said, was "just a little miracle.

"It's awesome," she said, "knowing you helped."

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